Editor’s note: A version of these remarks were delivered to the Yale Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate, February 20, 2020.
Let me briefly make the case for fossil fuel divestment.
In 1979, a National Academy of Sciences review of climate change research affirmed the basic attributes of global warming. The Report declared that “we have tried but have been unable to find any overlooked or underestimated physical effects” that might reduce estimates of future global warming.
Yet more than 40 years after this clear statement on the science, the U.S. still has no effective mechanisms to cut fossil fuel emissions: no carbon tax, no cap-and-trade, no effective regulation of the power industry.
The question is, why?
The University’s explanation for the climate problem, laid out in its 2014 and 2016 communications, is that our climate crisis is caused by consumers of fossil fuels.
Yale has argued that since consumers are the problem, “targeting fossil fuel suppliers for divestment … is misdirected.”
As a historian of energy policy, however, I believe that these public statements inaccurately characterize the situation and badly need to be updated.
Fossil fuel producers are among the most powerful companies in the world. They have engaged in a decades-long political struggle to prevent the kinds of government regulation that might address the climate problem.
In Washington state, the fossil fuel lobby, including leading companies such as BP, recently buried a proposed state carbon tax measure in a $30 million advertising campaign. In Colorado, oil companies, including market leaders, such as Exxon, waged multi-million-dollar campaigns against a ballot measure to regulate oil drilling and against legislation to strengthen environmental and health oversight of the industry.
In Washington, DC, fossil fuel companies have pressed the Trump administration with a wish list that includes the destruction of the Clean Power Plan, the weakening of the Clean Air Act and the elimination of regulations of mercury and methane pollution associated with energy production. The administration has withdrawn its support for the Paris Agreement.
An important part of the fossil fuel companies’ political campaign has been the well-documented and extraordinarily successful effort to undermine public faith in climate science research.
This disinformation campaign, funded significantly by fossil fuel companies and their executives and investors, has directly undercut Yale’s academic values and diminished the work of our faculty and students.
Efforts to establish effective regulation have been blocked by fossil fuel producers for decades. The producers are, quite literally, fighting to save their industries and investments and to wring every last dollar out before the fossil fuel spigot gets turned off.
As a result of their continuing grip on American politics, there are no meaningful regulatory measures on the horizon.
Crucially, the way in which coal and oil companies have corrupted our political system means that focusing solely on consumers will never be enough.
This brings us to the endowment. I think Yale should make a strong and explicitly ethical statement, a statement that is couched not in terms of investors internalizing pollution costs, but instead a declaration of Yale’s commitment to helping create a more sustainable and just future.
Climate change is a world historical event, the greatest threat to humanity’s future. Making clear that the University stands in opposition to those who are perpetuating and exacerbating our climate crisis is a moral imperative.
In short, I believe that Yale should divest from fossil fuel companies for three reasons:
First: to withdraw Yale’s public support from the fossil fuel companies that are preventing effective climate regulation;
Second: to disassociate Yale from a decades-long disinformation campaign that has directly undermined the kind of research and teaching that we do on campus;
Third: to separate Yale’s endowment from fossil fuel companies’ ongoing push to expand the supply of fossil fuels and thereby deepen our dependence on them.
There is a growing global moral consensus on the urgency of reducing carbon dioxide emissions and acting collectively to ensure humanity’s future.
Yale’s current statement on fossil fuel investment does not adequately reflect this consensus. It primarily expresses an economic stance toward risks and costs, and not an ethical position.
Other institutions have found ways to take a more definitive divestment position, including, most recently, Georgetown University. Yale should do the same. We should make a clear statement that we disavow the practices of these corporations and that our endowment is aligned with our research and teaching, and our forward-looking university-wide commitment on climate change and sustainability.
PAUL SABIN is Professor of History and American Studies and the coordinator of the Yale Environmental History working group and the Yale Environmental Humanities Initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .